Tonight marks the anniversary of the Droits de L’Homme engagement when Captains Sir Edward Pellew and Robert Carthew Reynolds in the frigates Indefatigable and Amazon took on Commodore Raymond de Lacrosse’s 74 gun ship of the line, Les Droits de L’Homme, and ran her into the surf off Hodierne Bay.
There are numerous published accounts of the engagement, of varying degrees of veracity, but Heather and I were fascinated to come across this “new” version of the engagement, which we discovered in Devon Records Office last week. This account is written by Edward Hawke Locker who served as Lord Exmouth’s secretary later in his career and the document is edited by Exmouth’s son George Pellew, Dean of Norwich. Neither Locker nor George Pellew were seamen and there are several slips and inaccuracies in the document that betray their lack of knowledge of the actions and engagements they are describing. The final version of this account, which has been altered substantially from this draft, was published in the United Service Journal in 1833 in an article titled “Memoirs of the Services of Admiral Lord Viscount Exmouth, G.C.B., Vice-Admiral of the United Kingdom”.
Sir Edward fell in with Les Droits de L’Homme a French 80 gun ship filled with troops returning from the expedition to Ireland, and steering for Brest Harbour which was then 30 or 40 leagues distant – Sir Edward running along side the chase closely engaged her for some time until he unavoidably shot ahead, and the Amazon shortly afterward following his example found herself similarly circumstanced – Having quickly shortened sail, the 2 frigates placed themselves on either side of their gigantic foe and with but a few interruptions from the cause already stated, continued the contest with unabated energy during the whole night, the men being often knee deep in water as they stood to their guns which they were obliged repeatedly to draw without firing – Meanwhile the enemy defended herself obstinately against her tenacious assailants, where fire had reduced her masts & spars almost to a wreck, and had committed great havoc among her crew still however she would not surrender but continued running blindly before the Gale with awful rapidity.
At this period Sir Edwd who, dreading the proximity of the iron bound coast of France, had dictated the strictest lookout to be kept, was informed of the appearance of land right ahead and almost about the same moment, of breakers close under the lee bow. This was one of those critical situations where the value of a clear cool head and firm heart is beyond all price – Not a moment was to be lost – Signals were made to the Amazon and both frigates instantly hauled off on different tacks. Almost immediately afterwards their brave enemy was descried lying on her beam ends amongst the rocks where, dreadful to relate, her whole crew consisting of 1600 persons perished – In her headlong rush for Brest Harbour she had missed her mark and gone ashore in Hodierne Bay – Nor was Sir Edwards situation when day dawned much to be preferred – a gale of wind – a dead lee shore, and an enemy’s at that – a crippled ship – an exhausted crew and the Penmark Rocks, that dread of seamen, to be weathered – these were the difficulties which presented themselves to him as the day dawned. By the ablest seamanship however and by the exertions as are only made when life depends on it they were all providentially surmounted and the Indefatigable reached Plymouth in safety – Her consort was not so fortunate – The next advices from France brought news that the brave Reynolds, failing to beat out of the bay, had been driven shore and was a prisoner with all his crew.